How to Resurrect an Urban School District

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Reports suggesting progress in any city are now more likely to be dismissed out of hand as the product of selective data collection or outright misconduct. That's what makes the case of Cincinnati, Ohio, so interesting and instructive.

The Cincinnati school district has improved both test scores and graduation rates since 2003 while -- unlike Atlanta and Washington -- transparently pursuing highly collaborative reform strategies that, counter to the current trend, don't rely on rigid hierarchy and punitive accountability. Because Cincinnati has implemented proven instructional approaches while nurturing a culture in which administrators, teachers, parents, and community groups closely communicate and work together as teams, the case serves as an important counterweight to the public school stories that have been dominating the news in the past few years. It also can serve as a roadmap for reversing course from the high-pressure tactics that gave rise to the cheating scandals and led to little progress elsewhere.

Beginning around 2003, when Cincinnati's test score results were on par with Ohio's other struggling urban school districts, it began to break away from the pack, and in 2010 became the first city to receive "effective" ratings on the Ohio District Report Card. Its strong results have generally persisted. Scores on its 11th grade graduation tests in 2011-2012 are comparable to state-wide averages, which include wealthier suburban districts, and are well above the levels for other urban Ohio districts. Those gains occurred even as the city's demographic composition held roughly steady over the past decade. Its childhood poverty rate is among the nation's highest.

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